I was invited to speak at LIFT09, in Geneva in February. This year the conference was around the simple question: ‘Where did the future go?”. There were several inspiring talks, the videos of which can be seen here, I have also posted mine at the end of this entry.
I was in the session: 'Design thinking for the future’ with Fabio Sergio and James Auger. Beyond the engineers and business' discourse about the future, what is it designers can propose? What sort of alternatives are they envisioning? What's the role of design thinking in creating more meaningful futures? My talk, titled: 'Learning to play with tomorrow' was based on the talk I gave at Design Engaged in Montreal in October 2008. Here I’d like to present the thinking behind the talk, and elaborate on some importantly points that I briefly touched upon at LIFT. The above photograph was taken back in 2005, where this schoolboy happily posed for my camera. The irony in this image is obvious. While the crisis around climate change has been looming large, the collapse of investment banks and the following economic crisis has finally sent off alarm bells. We are told repeatedly, by several voices including Dmitri Orlov, Saul Griffith, Kevin Kelly, Alex Steffen, Kazys Varnelis, to name a few, that things are really, really not going to simply come back ‘normal’ as we understand any time soon. While they propose new 'actionable' ways of building futures, what is really being asked is for a radical shift in our current lifestyles.
And that is where designers come in. As fear and uncertainty grows, I believe that it becomes imperative for us, as designers, to play an important role in building these alternative possibilities. Our thinking, methods and skills can become a formidable force in the think-and-do-tanks of the near future, alongside technologists, scientists, economists and futurists, shaping a future that is habitable and desirable. At a macroscopic level, governments, businesses, enterprises, research and policy organisations need designers to take on an active role, not only in designing things that work now, but more importantly in testing ideas that may seem too far out, ideas that are critical and ideas that are utopian, ideas that make us sit up, and ideas that shake our beliefs.
And to do this, we need to do, what I loosely call ‘design futurescaping’. By contextualising this design approach and its methods in the fabric of our present everyday, within the 'organisation' as well as from outside, from the labs in our bedrooms, gardens and streets, we can attempt to influence the social, political and economic discourses that shape our futures. And through Superflux, I have only just started to play in this space.
To illustrate my point, I used examples of architects, product designers and filmmakers from a not-so-distant past. The tumultuous time of the cold war and the student revolts was one of the most creative, radical phases of design thinking in the 20th century, much of it was exhibited recently at the fantastic Cold War Modern exhibition at the V&A, London. One design group I mentioned is the famous Superstudio, who according to Peter Lang, "launched one of the most radical campaigns against the state of architecture, attacking the senseless waste of energy and resources disappearing under the demands of an overcharged consumer culture". Now, that rings a bell today...
In the book 'Life without Objects', Superstudio state:
'By destruction of objects, we mean the destruction of their attributes of ‘status’ and the connotations imposed by power, so that we live with the objects (reduced to the condition of neutral disposable elements) and not for objects. By the elimination of the city, we mean the elimination of the accumulation of formal structures of power – the elimination of the city as hierarchy and social model, looking for a new free egalitarian state, in which everyone can reach different grades in the development of his possibilities, beginning from equal starting points.'
From contemporary times, I used the example of Lebbeus Woods - a prominent visionary whose speculative work has pushed the boundaries of architectural thinking in a way that can influence societal change. The premise for his New World Trade Centre proposal, 'a structure perpetually under construction, a 'World Centre', symbolizing regeneration and continual change', is truly inspiring.
I highly recommending reading his blog, and his interview with Geoff Manaugh. Both Superstudio, and Lebbeus Woods are essentially talking about how to almost re-construct society with ideas around 'equal', 'sustainable' and 'networks' being on top of the agenda. Having studied cinema and been a filmmaker in my previous life, it is exciting to see the connections in such thinking between filmmakers and designers.
A few years before Superstudio’s work, the post second world war unrest gave birth to the French new wave. Filmmakers like Godard, Truffuat and Chabrol, amongst many others, were making radical experiments in the filmmaking style, in an effort to break the linear, narrative conservative paradigm. Jean Rouch, the father of cinema vérité, also used the techniques of the French new wave, to exploit the blurry boundaries of documentary and fiction and became known as the father of Ethnofiction. These techniques of filmmaking can become important tools in the designer's box to articulate and tell stories of near futures. Below are images from Rouch and Edgar Morin's epic film 'Chronicle of A Summer' which started by asking a very simple question: "Are you happy, sir?". The filmmakers screen the film for the participants to critique it on-screen, as a way of inviting self-relfexivity, and investigating the 'truth about fiction'.
Now you may ask, the projects of Superstudio or Lebbeus woods quite often did not, or do not get built. But I think that is precisely the idea. They questioned and pushed radical thinking through a set of questions that those projects raised. And through those questions, images, scenarios and brilliant drawings, they influenced, and continue to influence designers and practitioners today.
Thanks to our current uncertain times, amidst the rising anxiety, there is once again an opportunity to test and try new design methods, evolve new business models, and make space for a bit of that enchanting ambiguity to resurface. In the rest of the talk, I briefly present some of the outcomes from two projects where I used methods of futurescaping - from narrative prototyping to storytelling – to explore possible worlds. The projects are 'Futurescapes of Work: Little Brinkland 2012', and 'Rethinking Machine Intelligence: Objects Incognito'. I will blog more about both the projects on another date, but from here on, I’ll leave you to watch the video of the talk.